While everyone likes to talk about bringing woolly mammoths or dinosaurs back to life, sometimes you have to start small. Like a tiny Arctic flower that’s been extinct for over 32,000 years. Russian scientists have apparently brought back the narrow-leafed campion, after finding a seed in an ancient rodent’s burrow.
This would be the oldest plant by far that has ever been grown from ancient tissue. The present record is held by a date palm grown from a seed some 2,000 years old that was recovered from the ancient fortress of Masada in Israel.
Seeds and certain cells can last a long term under the right conditions, but many claims of extreme longevity have failed on closer examination, and biologists are likely to greet this claim, too, with reserve until it can be independently confirmed. Tales of wheat grown from seeds in the tombs of the pharaohs have long been discredited. Lupines were germinated from seeds in a 10,000-year-old lemming burrow found by a gold miner in the Yukon. But the seeds, later dated by the radiocarbon method, turned out to be modern contaminants.
Despite this unpromising background, the new claim is supported by a firm radiocarbon date. A similar avenue of inquiry into the deep past, the field of ancient DNA, was at first discredited after claims of retrieving dinosaur DNA proved erroneous, but with improved methods has produced spectacular results like the reconstitution of the Neanderthal genome.
The new report is by a team led by Svetlana Yashina and David Gilichinsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences research center at Pushchino, near Moscow, and appears in Tuesday’s issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
“This is an amazing breakthrough,” said Grant Zazula of the Yukon Paleontology Program at Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, Canada. “I have no doubt in my mind that this is a legitimate claim.” It was Dr. Zazula who showed that the apparently ancient lupine seeds found by the Yukon gold miner were in fact modern.
But the Russians’ extraordinary report is likely to provoke calls for more proof. “It’s beyond the bounds of what we’d expect,” said Alastair Murdoch, an expert on seed viability at the University of Reading in England. When poppy seeds are kept at minus 7 degrees Celsius, the temperature the Russians reported for the campions, after only 160 years just 2 percent of the seeds will be able to germinate, Dr. Murdoch noted.
The Russian researchers excavated ancient squirrel burrows exposed on the bank of the lower Kolyma River, an area thronged with mammoth and woolly rhinoceroses during the last ice age. Soon after being dug, the burrows were sealed with windblown earth, buried under 125 feet of sediment and permanently frozen at minus 7 degrees Celsius.
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